Media consumption and digital communication tools have evolved over the last two decades and politicians, citizens and journalists have used these tools to participate in, influence and inform both democratic elections and world-wide crises like COVID-19.
Since the early 2000’s politicians have used social media to bypass traditional media outlets. Communicating with the public this way has influenced how people get their news and contributed to the impacts already affecting traditional journalism as newspaper revenues continue to decline steadily and the switch to online news consumption increases. The combination has resulted in fewer people going to traditional news outlets.
All professional journalism outlets verify their information but people continue to consume news on social media where one is more likely to be misinformed.
A recent study in Nature that finds many people spread fake news simply because they’re not paying attention to whether an article is accurate before they share it.
Facebook: From Election to Insurrection shows new evidence that reveals how Facebook could have prevented exposing over 100 million users to false voter fraud content, had the platform taken early and decisive action.
But voter fraud isn’t the only problem. Australia was recently at odds with tech giants Facebook and Google because the tech giants refused to share profits with local outlets even though the news outlets were providing content to the platforms.
But Australia’s deal with Facebook eventually restored Australian news pages Facebook had blocked. Blocking these pages had unexpected consequences for many government organizations and service groups, who found their pages had been banned too.
The case became a closely watched historic event and proved that small local news outlets would need to be regulated into the law somehow.
Communities need local news, and if Facebook has the power to isolate communities from accessing crucial information then regulations should be reconsidered and organizations like Facebook legislated to pay for journalism, as was decided in Australia.
While Facebook and Google presented the battle in Australia to be about freedom of expression, News Corp, a global diversified media and information services company, says the fight between the Australian government and tech giants is about how “we ensure quality journalism is funded in an era of quick and free access to news.”
Global news outlets and journalists around the world have had no other choice than to use social media tools and platforms to participate in, influence and inform on many subjects.
But news outlets and journalists are not making anything in return while their news circulates on social media platforms and those companies profit from it. In the twenty-first century, newspapers have struggled to stay financially stable. Print media earned $44.9 billion from ads in 2003, but only $16.4 billion from ads in 2014, according to Lumens Learning American Evolution of Media report.
If journalism is meant to be a public good, it needs the public’s support.
Although the majority of people were already dependent on technology and the internet, online media and news consumption has increased since the pandemic started in March 2020.
Journalists and news outlets inform the public and discover misinformation and lies, especially during world-wide crises like COVID-19 and democratic elections.
Historic events such as Obama’s (2009-2017) and Trump’s (2017-2021) presidency are examples of how media consumption and democratic participation are linked.
By election day in 2009, Obama had over two million Facebook supporters, while McCain had 600,000. Obama had 112,000 followers on Twitter, and McCain had only 4,600.
In an article for the Guardian in November, 2008, Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta said, “Obama’s win means future elections must be fought online.”
Before Trump’s presidency, Twitter did not aggressively regulate posts but at the tail end of his presidency, Trump’s Twitter account was deactivated and regulations on social media were put in place to better regulate fake news and the provoking of violence.
Recently it’s been clear regulations on social media have spiked since Trump’s impeachments (2019 and 2021) regarding his alleged provoking of the Capitol Building riots through social media.
Twitter first took action against Trump in May, 2020 appending fact-checks to Tweets he sent claiming postal votes were fraudulent. Later that same week, Twitter posted a warning label when the president threatened to send in the military to put an end to Black Lives Matter protests.
Twitter used fact-checks and warning labels increasingly throughout the year for Trump tweets about COVID-19 and the presidential election, culminating in his social media account ban.
Following the events of the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks, Big Tech CEOs have been called in front of the American Congress to testify on Thursday, March 25th.
The hearing called, “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation” will be hosted by co-chairs of the Energy & Commerce Committee Frank Pallone, as well as chairs of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Mike Doyle and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, Jan Schakowsky.
The problem extends beyond American borders.
2021 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism collected data from 40 countries and 6 continents. In the report, it said 35 per cent used Facebook to find, discuss or share information about COVID-19.
In a report called Malgorithm: How Instagram’s algorithm publishes misinformation and hate to millions during a pandemic, the Center for Countering Digital Hate has exposed how Instagram’s algorithm publishes dangerous misinformation about COVID and vaccines to millions in the midst of a pandemic by using real examples of posts recommended to users by the platform.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were the preferred and most used news platform choices, according to a class assignment which asked journalism students at Durham College to track media consumption.
Jon Wilson, 19, second-year Durham College (DC) Journalism – Mass Media student, tracked his online screen time and media consumption for five days. Wilson feels the pandemic and switch to online learning has made him and his classmates increase online screen time.
Wilson said the pandemic, “has made me more interested because I want to be up-to-date with the news about COVID-19 not only for my safety but for everyone else’s too.” Wilson said he feels he is addicted and more dependent to be online – always having his phone with him.
Like Wilson, the majority of DC journalism students felt the need to stay more up-to-date with current news about COVID-19.
Last year in 2020, data from the students revealed only 7.77 per cent of journalism students’ time online was used to consume news. As a class last year, they spent 676 hours and 36 minutes online for various reasons, yet only 57 hours in total were spent consuming news on various platforms.
However, the least used news platforms consumed by journalism students this year and last year included traditional news outlets such as Toronto Star, Oshawa This Week, Globe and Mail.
This year’s data showed an increase in interest to stay up-to-date with news, however, students in 2021 did not list nearly as many news outlet platforms as last year’s group did.
The data collected reflects larger data reports worldwide.
2021 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism surveyed over 80,000 online news consumers in 40 markets, including Kenya and the Philippines for the first time.
Social media was blamed to be the biggest problem for spreading false information.
The report says 38 per cent of those polled trust news most of the time and 56 per cent are concerned about what is real or fake news online.
Wilson says if he comes across news on social media and he does not think it is true, he will take a deeper dive on Google.
Reuters also reports 40 per cent blame politicians for misinformation, 14 per cent blame political activists and 13 per cent blamed the media and journalists.
However, in the report it said 39 per cent in the U.S. worry about what will happen to their local news and would miss it if it were gone. The report cites an increase in the number of people who have paid for online news over the last year.
The virus’s biggest effect, according to Reuters Digital News Report, is economic. More than 2000 newspaper jobs were affected as hundreds of publications across the UK face COVID-19 cuts. BuzzFeed closed UK and Australian news operations as well as shut down Huffington Post in Canada and Quebec.
The report also mentions the newspaper ‘extinction level’ crisis in the U.S., during COVID-19.
Although podcasts and newsletters are somewhat making a comeback, it might not be enough as COVID-19 is likely to create a digital evolution.
But the need to regulate big tech and new platforms has become even more crucial with the obvious evolution of AI and big tech on top of the increase in demand during the pandemic to be tuned in online.
If the loss of traditional newspapers and outlets is not enough to make the public regain trust in journalism, then Trump’s next move might convince readers to consider who regulates who.
Jason Miller, a long-time adviser and spokesperson for Trump’s 2020 campaign told Howard Kurtz on Fox’s “MediaBuzz” that Trump will be “returning to social media in probably about two or three months.”
Banned from Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, Miller added Trump’s return will be with “his own platform” that will attract “tens of millions” of new users and “completely redefine the game.”
But democracy is not a game.
These polls show that politicians, journalists and especially citizens need to become more aware of what they are consuming and sharing online when it comes to news.
If traditional journalism continues to decline and social media platforms continue to evolve and be used as a game of musical chairs that knowingly gives power to those who are spreading misinformation worldwide – it will be in our own hands as consumers and individuals to make assumptions, not Big Tech Giants or journalists.